How do people appreciate contemporary music?

StreamingThe devaluation of pop music

32.99 DM - that's how much the old "The Dome" CD from 1997 cost, which I recently found in an old box. 32.99 DM for a total of 40 songs, which at the time seemed like a fair price - 40 hits that I could hear whenever I wanted and didn't have to wait for them to be played on the radio or on MTV. Today you get access to over 50 million songs for the same amount - on streaming services like Spotify, Deezer or Apple Music.

The fact that we have access to almost every song in pop history for a monthly subscription of just ten euros has influenced the way we assess the value of pop songs - at least that's what the British music sociologist Lee Marshall believes. He wrote a professional article on it called "Do People Value Recorded Music?" And as far as our economic appreciation for music is concerned, he comes to a pretty devastating conclusion: No, we don't. At least most of us don't value music as much as we like to think. David Hesmondhalgh sees it that way too - he is a cultural scientist at the University of Leeds.

"I think there is a disparity: On the one hand there is the very high value that people attach to music - that is, how much they love it, how much it means to them and how much they love it in their lives. And on on the other hand, the very reluctance to pay for it. And the technological developments and changes in the music industry play a big role in the question of what we are willing to pay for music. "

Mismatch between importance and willingness to pay

This disparity has its origin in the uniform pricing of music formats, argues Lee Marshall in "Do People Value Recorded Music?" Every CD in a record store costs roughly the same, and every digital song in a download store costs roughly the same. This suggests to the consumer: this is the price for a CD, this is the price for a song - not: this is the price for a piece of music by this particular band.

According to Marshall, for decades the idea that you pay for the form of the music, i.e. for the record or the CD, not for the music itself has solidified - which would also explain why, in a survey by the BBC in 2016, the whole thing 48% of vinyl buyers said they had never played their latest records. And why, according to the British Phonographic Industry, a third of all phonograms purchased in Great Britain in 2013 were gifts: it is the object with all its symbolic value that counts - not the music on that object.

So what does that mean for the value of music if we only stream and the music is completely decoupled from an object? What if, for example, artists only get 0.3 cents per stream on Spotify?

"Streaming is legal piracy"

"Streaming is legal piracy. It allows people to listen to music without a guilty conscience without paying for it," says the American musician Zola Jesus. It currently has over 193,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Her most successful song on the platform: "Skin" with over 6.5 million streams.

"Streaming has completely devalued music for the listener. And although music is becoming an increasingly large part of people's lives through streaming services and they can access more music than ever before with just one click and discover new music, the amount that they're willing to pay for music, getting smaller and smaller. Everyone believes that just because they're paying $ 10 a month they should have access to all the songs in the world. And yeah, that's great and I appreciate that everyone is using Spotify -Account can listen to my music - but that is at the expense of my art. My music is devalued so much that it doesn't really make any sense for me to invest money to record an elaborate album. I can no longer justify this investment because I won't bring in the money again. "

Zola Jesus is particularly critical of Spotify's fixation on so-called mood playlists - music for special moods: music for learning, music for jogging, music for cooking. "Music For Every Mood" is also the name of a current Spotify advertising slogan, and Spotify boss Daniel Ek described the basis for this focus on mood playlists in 2015 as follows: "People are no longer looking for genres like hip-hop or country - they are looking for music that fits certain events or activities. "

The artists, their work and the context are becoming less and less important - what counts are mainly individual songs, believes Zola Jesus.

"It's depressing to be an artist right now"

"The users are hearing more and more of these playlists, and they only consist of singles. They no longer have any relation to the album as a whole, because hardly anyone listens to entire albums. At most once, otherwise only a song here and there from it. You didn't buy the album, so you don't have to spend time on it. You haven't invested anything. And that changes the connection and relationship to the music that you listen to. "

The musician tells how difficult it is for her to be creative under these circumstances. And that she often asks herself whether it all makes sense at all when her very cathartic and emotional music is just playing in the background for most people.

"It completely changed my relationship with what I do. And also with what I find inspiring and what I want to express as an artist. Because I have the feeling that there is less and less space for my type of music. Sure, it it gives more access to it and a lot more potential listeners, but hardly any place for it in everyday life. It's really sad. Somehow pretty depressing to be an artist. "

Look for new streaming revenue models

According to Austin Hou, musicians only get around 11 percent of all the sales that their art generates. Hou is a music fan and founder of the platform Currents, which wants to help musicians get more from streaming their songs.

"There was that moment in the past when we all had great hope in the promise of technology and how the music industry could change through the internet. It got easier to make music and it got easier to distribute too. But now, a few Years later, it feels like nothing has changed. It's not that people don't spend money on music - the music industry's sales are increasing year after year. Spotify was the most valuable company in the world after going public in 2018 World! But none of this money goes back to the music community. "

To support this community, Currents offers fans and artists the opportunity to create and comment on their own playlists. Musicians can embed or upload their songs on the website and fans can support them with donations.

Statistics are displayed on the artists' currents pages: a donation of 9 dollars a month is therefore worth as much as 65,000 streams a year on Spotify, or 385,000 clicks a year on YouTube. These figures make it very clear once again how difficult it is for musicians to make money with their music alone in times of digitalization. But Hou doesn't want to blame the streaming platforms alone for this.

The value of creative work

"It would be too easy to say that streaming is the problem. Or that the music industry has always been like that. Sure, that's true in a way. But it's also this almost malicious way we value music. Anything." Album in the world costs the same, every song costs the same. And it's totally absurd if you think about it a little more carefully. As if you were to say: each painting costs $ 50. And I think that's because it It's just very difficult to put a price on creative work. And that's why companies make it easy for us by making it so that we don't even have to think about it. How much should art cost? And is it really worth to us? And of course also: how much is it not worth to us? These are fundamental questions when it comes to the value of creative work and we should urgently start talking about them. And we try to initiate this discussion. Why does it cost? something so much and what might be missing at this price?

It will be interesting to see whether projects such as Currents or fairer streaming platforms such as Resonate or Bandcamp manage to bring these questions more into our consciousness - and maybe even ensure that musicians in the streaming age can make a better living from their albums. Or whether live shows will play an even more important role as a source of income in the future. Perhaps musicians and music fans will also have to face the bitter truth, which the British cultural scientist David Hesmodhalgh describes as follows:

Is the role of music overrated?

"I think those of us who love music and whose lives it plays a big part in, sometimes overestimate the size of the population that has this kind of relationship with music. Psychological studies have found that most people Only use music on the side in everyday life. Most of the time, they cannot remember what they have heard. Maybe they just don't care. And music lovers often condemn this kind of music consumption very harshly - but also unfairly, one could say this way of listening to music is nothing new. Radio used to play that role. And now streaming services are taking over that role more and more. "

There will be no getting around playlists in the future either. But with a view to all the musicians who are scratching the subsistence level due to the pandemic and the resulting failed concerts, it still seems necessary to think about new streaming revenue models. And keep asking yourself the question: What is music worth to me?

In any case, Zola Jesus is not sure whether the current system can be changed - but she wants to fight for it: "I wish the music industry would be restructured so that it would be fairer and more just. But I don't see that coming as long as that Capitalism is not completely rethought as an economic form. In capitalism there will always be business people at the top who want to make a profit from art. And it is simply inevitable that artists will be exploited. In an ideal world, they would The voices of the musicians count and it would be they who set the conditions. That would be a step in the right direction. And I hope that it will come that way. But for that we still have to fight against a large number of people in positions of power. "